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About the Author
Date of Birth:March 18, 1932
Date of Death:January 27, 2009
Place of Birth:Shillington, Pennsylvania
Place of Death:Beverly Farms, MA
Education:A.B. in English, Harvard University, 1954; also studied at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford, England
Read an Excerpt
Museums and Women
SET TOGETHER, the two words are seen to be mutually transparent; the e’s, the m’s blend—the m’s framing and squaring the structure lend resonance and a curious formal weight to the m central in the creature, which it dominates like a dark core winged with flitting syllables. Both words hum. Both suggest radiance, antiquity, mystery, and duty.
My first museum I would visit with my mother. It was a provincial museum, a stately pride to the third-class inland city it ornamented. It was approached through paradisiacal grounds of raked gravel walks, humus-fed plantings of exotic flora, and trees wearing tags, as if freshly named by Adam. The museum’s contents were disturbingly various, its cases stocked with whatever scraps of foreign civilization had fallen to it from the imperious fortunes of the steel and textile barons of the province. A shredding kayak shared a room with a rack of Polynesian paddles. A mummy, its skull half masked in gold, lay in an antechamber like one more of the open-casket funerals common in my childhood. Miniature Mexican villages lit up when a switch was flicked, and a pyramid was being built by dogged brown dolls who never pulled their papier-mâché stone a fraction of an inch. An infinitely patient Chinaman, as remote from me as the resident of a star, had carved a yellow rhinoceros horn into an upright crescental city, pagoda-tipped, of balconies, vines, and thimble-sized people wearing microscopic expressions of pain.
This was downstairs. Upstairs, up a double flight of marble climaxed by a splashing green fountain, the works of art were displayed. Upstairs, every fall, the county amateur artists exhibited four hundred watercolors of peonies and stone barns. The rest of the year, somberly professional oils of rotting, tangled woodland had the walls to themselves, sharing the great cool rooms with cases of Philadelphia silver, chests decorated with hearts, tulips, and bleeding pelicans by Mennonite folk artists, thick aqua glassware left bubbled by the blowing process, quaint quilts, and strange small statues. Strange perhaps only in the impression they made on me. They were bronze statuettes, randomly burnished here and there as if by a caressing hand, of nudes or groups of nudes. The excuse for nudity varied; some of the figures were American Indians, some were mythical Greeks. One lady, wearing a refined, aloof expression, was having her clothes torn from her by a squat man with horns and hairy hooved legs hinged the wrong way. Another statue bodied forth two naked boys wrestling. Another was of an Indian, dressed in only a knife belt, sitting astride a horse bareback, his chin bowed to his chest in sorrow, his exquisitely toed feet hanging down both hard and limp, begging to be touched. I think it was the smallness of these figures that carried them so penetratingly into my mind. Each, if it could have been released into life, would have stood about twenty inches high and weighed in my arms perhaps as much as a cat. I itched to touch them, to interact with them, to insert myself into their mysterious silent world of strenuous contention—their muscles and tendons articulated, their violent poses detailed down to the fingernails. They were in their smallness like secret thoughts of mine projected into dimension and permanence, and they returned to me as a response that carried strangely into lower parts of my body. I felt myself a furtive animal stirring in the shadow of my mother.
My mother: like the museum, she filled her category. I knew no other, and accepted her as the index, inclusive and definitive, of women. Now I see that she, too, was a repository of treasure, containing much that was beautiful, but somewhat jumbled, and distorted by great gaps. She was an unsearchable mixture of knowledge and ignorance, openness and reserve; though she took me many Sundays to the museum, I do not remember our discussing anything in it except once when, noticing how the small statues fascinated me, she said, “Billy, they seem such unhappy little people.” In her glancing way she had hit something true. The defeated Indian was not alone in melancholy; all the statuettes, as they engaged in the struggles or frolics that gave each group the metallic unity of a single casting, seemed fixed in a fate from which I yearned to rescue them. I wanted to touch them, yet I held my hand back, afraid of breaking the seal on their sullen, furious underworld.
My mood of dread in those high, cool galleries condensed upon the small statues but did not emanate from them; it seemed to originate above and behind me, as if from another living person in the room. Often my mother, wordlessly browsing by the wall on the paintings of woods and shaggy meadows, was the only other person in the room. Who she was was a mystery so deep it never formed into a question. She had descended to me from thin clouds of preëxistent time, enveloped me, and set me moving toward an unseen goal with a vague expectation that in the beginning was more hers than mine. She was not content. I felt that the motion which brought us again and again to the museum was an agitated one, that she was pointing me through these corridors toward a radiant place she had despaired of reaching. The fountain at the head of the stairs splashed unseen; my mother’s footsteps rustled and she drew me into another room, where a case of silver stood aflame with reflections; it seemed the mouth of a dragon of beauty. She let me go forward to meet it alone. I was her son and the center of her expectations. I dutifully absorbed the light-struck terror of the hushed high chambers, and went through each doorway with a kind of timid rapacity.
This museum, my first, I associate with another, less ghostly hunt; for this was one of the places—others being the telephone company, the pretzel factory, and the county fair—where schoolchildren were taken on educational expeditions. I would usually be toward the end of the line, among the unpaired stragglers, and up front, in the loud nucleus of leaders, the freckled girl I had decided I loved. The decision, perhaps, was as much my mother’s as mine. The girl lived in our neighborhood, one of a pack of sisters, and from the time she could walk past our front hedge my mother had taken one of her fancies to her. She spoke admiringly of her “spirit”; this admiration surprised me, for the girl was what was known locally as “bold,” and as she grew older fell in with a crowd of children whose doings would certainly have struck my mother as “unhappy.” My mother always invited her to my birthday parties, where she, misplaced but rapidly forgiving the situation, animated for a few dazzling hours my circle of shy, sheltered friends.
When I try to picture my school days, I seem to be embedded among boiling clouds straining to catch a glimpse of this girl, as if trapped in a movie theatre behind a row of huge heads while fragmented arcs of the screen confusingly flicker. The alphabet separated us; she sat near the front of the classroom and I, William Young, toward the rear. Where the alphabet no longer obtained, other systems intervened. In the museum, a ruthless law propelled her forward to gather with the other bold spirits, tittering, around the defenseless little naked statues, while I hung back, on the edge of the fountain, envious, angry, and brimming with things to say. I never said them.
The girl who was to become my wife was standing at the top of some stone museum steps that I was climbing. Though it was bitterly cold, with crusts of snow packed into the stone, she wore threadbare sneakers from which her little toes stuck out, and she was smoking. Awesome sheets of smoke and frozen vapor flew from her mouth and she seemed, posed against a fluted pilaster, a white-faced priestess immolating herself in the worship of tobacco. “Aren’t your feet cold?” I asked her.
“A little. I don’t mind it.”
“Maybe I’m a masochist.”
She said nothing. Had I said something curious?
I lit a cigarette, though inhaling the raw air rasped my throat, and asked her, “Aren’t you in Medieval Art? You sit near the front.”
“Yes. Do you sit in the back?”
“I feel I should. I’m a history major.”
“This is your first fine-arts course?”
“Yeah. It met at a good hour—late enough for a late breakfast and early enough for an early lunch. I’m trying to have a sophomore slump.”
“Are you succeeding?”
“Not really. When the chips are down, I tend to grind.”
“How do you like Medieval Art?”
“I love it. It’s like going to a movie in the morning, which is my idea of sin.”
“You have funny ideas.”
“No. They’re very conventional. It would never occur to me, for example, to stand outside in the snow in bare feet.”
“They’re not really bare.”
Nevertheless, I yearned to touch them, to comfort them. There was in this girl, this pale creature of the college museum, a withdrawing that drew me forward. I felt in her an innocent sad blankness where I must stamp my name. I pursued her through the museum. It was, as museums go, rather intimate, built around a skylight-roofed replica of a sixteenth-century Italian courtyard. At the four corners of the flagstone courtyard floor, four great gray terra-cotta statues of the seasons stood. Bigger than life, they were French, and reduced the four epic passages of the year to four charming aristocrats, two male and two female, who had chosen to attend a costume ball amusingly attired in grapes and ribbons. Spring wore a floppy hat and carried a basket of rigid flowers. The stairways and galleries that enabled the museum to communicate with itself around the courtyard were distinctly medieval in feeling, and the vagaries of benefaction had left the museum’s medieval and Oriental collections disproportionately strong, though a worthy attempt had been made to piece together the history of art since the Renaissance with a painting or at least a drawing by each master. But the rooms that contained these later works—including some Cézannes and Monets that, because they were rarely reproduced in art books, had the secret sweetness of flowers in a forest—were off the route of the course we were both taking. My courtship primarily led down stone corridors, past Romanesque capitals, through low archways giving on gilded altar panels.